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Brand of the Year: Birkenstock

Today's fashion elite are slipping into a staple comfort label.

Houghton Birkenstock spring 2014

Houghton paired its spring ’14 collection with Birkenstock.

Photo By Courtesy of Houghton

Birkenstock is turning quirky into the new cool.

The comfort brand showed up on the spring ’14 runways of Shades of Grey by Micah Cohen, Houghton, Edun and Mr. Turk. But even before all this activity, French fashion house Céline is credited with jump-starting the trend, when, for spring ’13, designer Phoebe Philo did her own over-the-top fur-lined versions. Hollywood’s fashion set quickly embraced Birkenstock’s footbed sandals, which have shown up on the feet of Drew Barrymore, Kate Hudson, Ashton Kutcher and Leonardo DiCaprio. By all accounts, it’s a far cry from the brand’s American roots in 1960s hippie culture.

“We all know the stereotypical consumer,” said David Kahan, CEO of Novato, Calif.-based Birkenstock USA. “Now women with Jimmy Choo, Stuart Weitzman and Converse in their closets are adding Birkenstock to their wardrobes. We’re unleashing what’s been a dormant brand.”

The increased attention has meant steady sales growth, leading the label to estimate a 30 percent uptick in business for 2014, thanks in part to high-profile retailers including Bloomingdale’s, Nordstrom, Zappos.com and DSW promoting the brand.

For Boston-based The Tannery, a long-time partner, Birkenstock is on deck to be among its top sellers for spring ’14. “It will be one of our hottest brands [attracting] a new customer. People want the authentic [brand]. They don’t want copies or look-alikes,” said co-owner Tarek Hassan, adding that he’s tripled his Birkenstock orders for spring ’14 over the previous year and will even do a collaboration with the label for his Concepts store for that season.

Still others are jumping back into business with the German-owned brand. Just last month, Madison Los Angeles received the iconic Arizona two-banded style for women. “It’s what’s going on in fashion right now,” said owner Mark Goldstein. “[It’s about] going back to the original. Everyone will buy it as it gets out in the fashion world. It’s comfortable and affordable.” Goldstein will add men’s styles for spring ’14. And while he predicts Birkenstock will initially resonate with younger consumers, he said fans who wore the brand decades ago will return to it.

The retro label also has brought new retailers into the franchise. San Francisco-based Heidi Says, which includes a shoe store and two clothing boutiques, began offering the looks this summer. “The shoes caused quite a stir,” said buyer Katie Conway. “They sat next to [Giuseppe] Zanotti and other high-end designers. Either customers loved them or were shocked by them.”

In fact, noted Conway, she even offered the sandals in the chain’s casual clothing stores. “It’s rare we put shoes in the clothing stores, but Birkenstock worked perfectly with brands including Vince and Joie,” she said.

Indeed, ready-to-wear designers were among the first to put their seals of approval on the sandals. Designer Katharine Polk, who collaborated with Birkenstock on a series of runway styles for her spring ’14 Houghton line, said she was inspired to use the iconic looks after a vacation to hippie haven Woodstock, N.Y. “I was wearing my own Birkenstocks on the trip, and it all came together,” she said. “I thought it was the perfect complement. The Houghton girl is always in flats.” The fashion label also worked with Birkenstock for a series of customized styles, which Birkenstock detailed with embroidered fabrics from Polk’s collection.

Like Polk, designer Micah Cohen said his Shades of Grey collection and Birkenstock go together because both have a laid-back attitude. “One of the main themes in my men’s collection are traditional [looks] done in a dressed-down way — suitings with an athletic twist,” he said. “You usually don’t associate suitings with comfort, but that was the point. The Birks highlighted the approach I took to the collection.”

The Birkenstock frenzy has spread internationally as well. “[We have] a huge following in Japan,” said Kahan, who joined the firm in May. “In the U.S., we will begin to coordinate some [looks] with [the Japanese market] so we can capture a global sense of style and creative direction.”

While the brand’s Arizona sandal and Gizeh thong — both longtime signatures — have been the most sought-after this year, interest is mounting for the Boston clog for fall ’14, Kahan said. “There’s underground heat about it,” he said. “Our clog business will be tremendous.”

With all the attention, Kahan admitted the company may not be able to keep up with demand. “Our limitation for 2014 is our production capacity,” he said, noting the sandals continue to be made largely by hand. “We probably had to turn down 20 percent more business because of our limitations. From a brand-management standpoint and long-term strategy, making us a little hard to find isn’t necessarily a bad thing.”

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